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"If Beale Street Could Talk": The Personal vs the Political

November 12, 2019

 

The first time Christopher Hitchens heard the slogan “The Personal Is Political” he knew – as he tells us in his Letters to a Young Contrarian – that a “truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse”. It was this very notion that seemed to embolden otherwise “dense and boring and selfish” people to insist on being heard not on the basis of anything they had worked towards or achieved, but on the basis of who they claimed to be. This narcissism led to increasingly facile efforts to appear revolutionary while being distinctly reactionary, so Hitchens offered this advice to his reader: “Beware of identity politics. I’ll rephrase that: have nothing to do with identity politics.”

 

It is possible to flip the identitarian slogan around, and the artists who have created the most politically and socially potent works have understood that the political is best expressed through the personal. The singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell so engagingly captures the simple horror of Big Brother totalitarianism, in her song 1984, by revealing a world of privacy invasion and control through its impact on the intimacy within a romantic relationship. “You know you’re my one and only, you always have been,” she assures her lover, before the devastating reveal: “Sure is going to be lonely after I turn you in.”

 

Weak writers, by contrast, do not imbue their political messages with the humanity required to elevate their rhetoric to art. Ayn Rand’s exhausting novel Atlas Shrugged is a monumental failure in no small part because her players are not characters at all – they are pieces on a chess board at which she plays one side (as opposed to Nabokov who somewhere said that his novels are moral chess games in which he plays both sides). Her puppets do not bleed and breathe, they speak in declarations of the author’s philosophy.

 

In poorly written books, good characters are merely good and bad characters are only bad. People are never this simple in real life, and so characters like these are never fully human. Similarly, most books and movies are not entirely great or awful; the worst can have something endearing about them or elements of interest in them, and the best are not unblemished by flaws.

 

I saw If Beale Street Could Talk last year and fell immediately in love with it. I planned to write about what made the movie so transcendentally genius, beautiful, and moving. And while it certainly is those things, I found myself thinking about some subtle problems with the movie. These flaws are minor against the elegant grand scheme of Beale Street, but as I examine them more closely, I see that they not only reveal something worth noting about how artists can go wrong but also illuminate more about what this movie does so well. So I want to look at everything, the good and bad, about what Beale Street is saying.

 

 

 

If Beale Street Could Talk is a movie about truth. It is about the deepest truths of shared humanity, the truth of what unites and what divides us, the truth of experience and relating that experience to others. It is about the truth of being alive and in love and being loved. The only false thing this movie deals with is the rape allegation that condemns to prison Fonny, an innocent man guilty of being black and unfortunate enough to cross paths with a crooked cop, while his pregnant lover, Tish, seeks his release. We witness with honesty the truth of how individuals, couples, and families deal with such things. We also see the life-long history of the relationship between Tish and Fonny, from childhood baths to finding their first apartment.

 

There is something of the rhapsodic about these mnemonic associations, which are sometimes little more than diegetically silent images woven together by the whims of free-association. In these scenes we see the transcendence that cinema, at its finest, both points towards and sometimes, somehow, captures. It therefore seems a little impoverished as an approach to pick this apart with the tools of film criticism, something like the natural beauty of a butterfly on the breeze compared to the pinned specimen sanitised and labelled beneath glass. And yet if we are ever to study the numinous, we have to make do ­– as artists and saints throughout the centuries have known – with the inadequacies of rational language.

 

Barry Jenkins, director of Beale Street, makes deft use of the interplay between montage, score, and cinematography. The chopped up, jazz-inspired sequences act as the visual component of memory, flicking freely from image to image. We are invited through Tish’s memories to experience and interrogate the relationships between moments, how one infuses another with its lingering notes, how the whole is inevitably a stew of particulars.

 

Nicholas Britell’s score, meanwhile, evokes both swooning elation and sorrowful mourning, and envelops the viewer like the soft towels that young Tish and Fonny wrap around their bodies. According to Britell, an early note from Jenkins informed the piece that plays over the montage of our lovers bathing as children and falling in love as adults – the note asked, What does joy sound like?

 

Finally, James Laxton’s cinematography lends subtle visual cues that create empathy from those who see for those who are seen: There is an elegant juxtaposition between the informal, sweeping shots of the two children who ­– as Tish’s voice-over tells us – are unaware of each other’s bodies and the tighter, intimate shots of grown-up Tish and Fonny painfully, joyously aware of nothing but the other’s physicality.

 

None of this is present in the early montage of poverty and police brutality that drops, jarringly and with far less emotional weight of its own, into the narrative of Fonny’s life story. Tish narrates the “simple” cause and effect of being told that those like Fonny “weren’t worth shit” and going on to live that out. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that Fonny lives against, attempting to shape his life like one of his sculptures to look nothing like the raw, coarse material with which he begins.

 

But this montage is stock footage in black and white, tossed out against a blandly empty jazz score and the distant sound of police sirens. What this achieves is markedly less powerful and moving than the rest of the movie, which is the consequence of how less nuanced this sequence is compared to others. These are images that make most of us feel innate shame and empathy – rows of young black men stripped of identity, shackled to their prisoner status, overseen by armed white guards – and presented aesthetically in a manner most of us are socialised to react to in a broadly sad and sympathetic way: still images against a mournful score while a voice-over tells us how wrong it all is. During this section, the movie is suddenly reduced to a Michael Moore documentary.

 

Which is all well and good for a middling Netflix documentary clicked on only by those whom the algorithm has determined will be interested in the subject. It is not up to the very high standard of complex art that the rest of Beale Street sets for itself. The substantive difference between the soulful impact of those sequences portraying the childhoods and romance of Tish and Fonny and the lacklustre effect of the still-image montage is this: The former is Personal in its approach, whereas the latter prioritises the Political. We are brought back to the slogans we encountered at the beginning of this essay, that “The Personal Is Political” and its reverse form.

 

You may wish to argue that one can concede that, of the two approaches, one is more emotionally involving but the other is making an important socio-political comment. To that I say they need not be separate. The Political can be made more powerful by filtering it through the Personal. And what is frustrating to me is that Beale Street itself achieves exactly this in a later scene, in which Fonny runs into an old friend, Daniel, whom he brings back to his apartment for beer and smokes.

 

Here, they catch up on old times, bantering and reminiscing, which dissolves into a painful account of the two years Daniel has just spent “in the slammer”. In a six-minute scene that is, for the most part, a monologue – one so gripping that time evaporates and so harrowing that it never feels like an impersonal lecture – Daniel conveys to us the injustice and horror of the justice system. We learn that he did two years for a car theft he did not commit (“I don’t even know how to drive a car, Fonny”) because it meant a lighter sentence than what he would have received for the small amount of pot in his pocket during the arrest.

 

The scene is a masterclass in everything from sound design to dialogue to the dynamics of light. What it does most powerfully is to convey the political – the truth of a justice system in desperate need of real justice to fix its sins against black citizens – through the personal – the truth of Daniel’s experience as victim, Fonny’s experience as sympathetic friend, Tish’s experience of hearing about what she desperately fears happening to one she loves. The filmmakers are no more lecturing the viewer, as they do in the previously mentioned montages, than Daniel is lecturing Fonny. It is all the more impactful for sharply evoking our sympathy (as only art can) rather than merely educating our intellect (which is better achieved in other forms, such as documentaries or polemical books). The Political through the Personal is powerful.

 

 

 

 

When Shakespeare confessed in sonnet to a lover, “I do not love thee with mine eyes” and that his heart loves “in despite of view”, he may simply have not been looking for long enough. The psychologist Arthur Aron has claimed that four minutes of eye contact (following a series of intimate questioning) could make two strangers fall in love. It is a bold claim and need not be wholly embraced to acknowledge that lovers have, since time immemorial, connected deeply through the optic nerve. It is a staple cliché of love songs: I only have eyes for you ... Can’t take my eyes off of you ... My eyes adored you ... In your eyes, I am complete ...

 

Coming down somewhat from the lofty transcendence of love, eye contact is known for its almost mystically significant powers regarding everything from conflict resolution (it’s harder to say the worst things you otherwise might while face to face with the object of scorn) to marketing (countless studies claim social media users engage drastically more with posts containing pictures of people’s faces).

 

And somewhere between the grubby depths of social media marketing and the enlightened heights of true love sits Jenkins’ use of direct-to-camera shots in Beale Street. The viewer is repeatedly confronted with characters looking out of the film and into our eyes. We connect directly, immediately, in a way that reminds me of something someone said (I never remember who) about music being the art form with the most direct connection to our emotions. We see the face and, as philosopher Emmanuel Levinas claimed would happen in such encounters, we confront the Other. We feel their humanness.

 

For me, the most devastating of these shots is after Fonny has been beaten off-screen in prison and he looks, with blackened and bloodied eyes, through the plastic screen dividing him from the outside world, and he looks directly at me, the viewer. I see his brokenness and feel my own, and for a skipped heartbeat of a paradoxical moment, that brokenness somehow speaks of wholeness as a person.

 

But this is all absent from the direct-to-camera shots of the “bad guy” of the film, Officer Bell. Bell is the crooked cop who falsely claims to have seen Fonny fleeing the scene of a rape. Bell is unquestionably (because unquestioned by the movie) an out-and-out monster. When he is allowed to look at us directly, in slow motion with ominous strings announcing the depravity of his character, we see only what the movie wants us to see: simplistic evil. Where we look into Fonny’s eyes and feel empathy, we look into Officer Bell’s and see not a person but a concept, the manifestation of bigotry.

 

Evil often evades justice or correction by convincing us that people are wholly good or wholly evil; it operates in this way when people assume a holy man could never rape a child or a loved one would never deliberately hurt us. We are each of us good and evil, light and dark. We all have both the devil and god within us. This is why this portrayal of Officer Bell as “simply” wicked strips the film of its complexity, its honesty, and its portrayal of people as people and not as what we project onto them. In these moments, the film jettisons the Personal and becomes solely Political, and it is the poorer for it.

 

We see this inability or refusal to engage at a human level with those who harbour certain prejudices when Tish tells Fonny’s family that she is pregnant. Fonny’s mother and two sisters are prudish, priggish puritans of a Hell-and-brimstone kind of Evangelicalism. Really they are caricatures. Whether it is the way they are written or how they are performed by the actors (I suspect a combination of the two) these godly women are portrayed as if by people who have never actually met the kind of fundamentalists Fonny’s relatives are supposed to be. They are more like boogeymen for liberals.

 

I have met these Christians – hell, I was that kind of Christian. While many of the beliefs that many of them hold are indeed strange blends of ludicrous, unhealthy, and bigoted ideas, the people who hold them are always much more than that. There is an over-the-top theatricality here that makes these characters seem as if they have just walked out of a pantomime, which jars against the realist drama of the rest of the movie.

 

The scene is less moving for our being able to dismiss the conflict between two sets of people with complex motivations, values, and neuroses as simply a clash between our “heroes” and some ridiculous religious zealots. The only moment in which we glimpse some real humanity in Fonny’s mother is as she finally leaves, and her self-righteously furious exclamation of “That child! That child ...” descends into a sorrowful sob and we see that she is not entirely sure what she is saying. Where was that in the rest of the scene?

 

 

 

 

There are many reasons why The Lord of the Rings is superior to any of C S Lewis’ Narnia books, but the most pertinent is that Lewis doesn’t trust his reader’s imagination. He is desperate to ensure that everyone “gets” the religious message he wants to impart, so much so that the resulting novels are almost bald retellings of Bible stories with only the names changed. Tolkien, on the other hand, never preaches. Middle-earth contains many themes, symbols, and lessons of a Christian nature (such as Gandalf’s resurrection or Bilbo’s radical mercy towards Gollum) but the stories stand on their own and do not reduce themselves to pedagogy.

 

In an interview with Little White Lies, Barry Jenkins discussed some of the socio-political implications of his movie. It is clear that he believes that the art must come before any “message”:

 

“Now, if I’d made [Beale Street] with that dynamic implicit in my intentions, I think the work would suffer ... I [would be] showing you what I think you need to see as opposed to making the material the way I feel it should be made.”

 

Despite this statement, those few moments in the movie discussed above do feel like being shown what someone thinks we “need to see” rather than the material being allowed to work organically and authentically. It is otherwise difficult to make sense of why an intimate, personal story, narrated at points by one of its characters who shows no strong political affiliations at any point, would feature such starkly politicised and depersonalised elements.

 

In case it has not yet been made perfectly clear, let me clarify once more that I am not arguing that politics has no place in art. That would be an ahistorical and unnecessarily restrictive way of approaching and making art. However, just as documentaries and journalism are expected to prioritise facts over fictions, art should prioritise the aesthetic and champion the subjective. Art should emphasise the personal just as an engine should make a vehicle run. An engine might do otherwise but then it would be something else; if it held down my papers on my desk, it would cease to be an engine and would become a paperweight. Art can forgo the artistic but it becomes something other than art.

 

This is what all of this comes down to with If Beale Street Could Talk: It is, ultimately, a passionate, intimate, and thoughtfully astute movie, except when it forgets that it is a movie and becomes primarily political. In those few unfortunate moments, it becomes something other than art. Art is always something personal, and within art, the Political should be personal too.

 

 

 

 

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References:

• If Beale Street Could Talk, dir. Barry Jenkins (2018)

• Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens (2001)

• “1984”, from Hymns for the Exiled,  Anaïs Mitchell (2004)

“How If Beale Street Could Talk Translates Joy and Terror Into Sound”, in The Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis (2018)

• Sonnet 141, William Shakespeare (1609)

• “A Conversation with Barry Jenkins”, in Little White Lies, issue 78, David Jenkins (2019)

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